Monday, 31 December 2018

MY TOP TEN MOVIES OF 2018

Can it be twelve months since I picked my Top Ten Movies of 2017? Well, yes, it must have been twelve months and what an idiot I am for even opening this blog post with that.

As usual, my Top Ten films are listed in purely alphabetical order. I'm not even going to try to assign any sort of ranking to them - these are the ten movies I enjoyed most in 2018 plus eleven honourable mentions this time out because I just couldn't narrow it down to ten.

Your Top Ten is probably completely different to mine. That's fine. You may hate some of the titles I've chosen. That's also fine. Just don't @ me telling me how much I suck as a person because I happen to love Mandy.

This year, there's no short movie in the Top Ten although I saw some very good ones and there's still a lot of great work to be found in that medium. For those of you fine folk who trudged dutifully through my "Best of 2017" post you may spot that one of those movies also appears on the 2018 list as well. There are also two animated movies which find themselves in the Top Ten this year and, as is customary, a smattering of the very best titles on the horror festival circuit.

Okay, let's go...


BLACKKKLANSMAN


Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black police officer from Colorado Springs, manages to infiltrate the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan with a few well-placed phone calls and the assistance of fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who goes undercover as Ron at the Klan meetings. Pretty soon, "Ron" is attracting the attention of the senior figures in the KKK, including Grand Wizard David Duke (played by Topher Grace) himself...

A story so bizarre that it could only be true, BlacKkKlansman is a movie which will have you laughing out loud one moment and clenching your fists in anger the next. Spike Lee's film shows just how ridiculous bigotry is by playing it mostly for effective laughs, although there are moments of almost unbearable tension as Driver faces situation where he may be found out at any moment.

The tonal shift towards the end may seem a little jarring but I thought it fit the movie very well. Yes, there's plenty of fun to be had pricking the pomposity of those who see themselves as superior but some of those people are genuinely dangerous and motivated to carry out the most horrible of acts to demonstrate the strength of their beliefs.

BlacKkKlansman puts its message across without the need to get too preachy about it. It'll leave you thoroughly entertained but it'll also leave you thinking, which can't be a bad thing.


BLINDSPOTTING


On the final three days of his probation, Collin (Daveed Diggs) witnesses a policeman shooting a fleeing black man, which causes him to miss the curfew at the halfway house where's he staying as part of his parole terms. He also somehow finds himself in possession of a gun owned by Miles (Rafael Casal), his somewhat loose cannon of a best friend. Collin's previous romantic relationship with removal company dispatcher Val looks to be in tatters and she doesn't seem overly keen to be associating with Collin any more. Can he negotiate all of these problems to land himself on the straight and narrow?

As well as starring in the film, Diggs and Casal wrote the screenplay, which adroitly tackles race, class, gentrification and more besides in a down-to-earth, honest, often amusing manner. I admit that I don't know a great deal about Oakland but the way it's portrayed in Blindspotting felt authentic to me - a community doing its best to thrive despite numerous issues.

A winning combination of the comedic and the dramatic - and with a portrayal of male friendship that rings with truth - Blindspotting is a fascinating slice of life in the Bay Area made with heart and soul. Suffice to say, I'm very much looking forward to the next Daveed Diggs/Rafael Casal collaboration.


THE BREADWINNER


In the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan of the early 21st century, 11-year-old Parvana's father is wrongfully arrested and she has to provide for her family by disguising herself as a boy. If that wasn't dangerous enough, Parvana used her new-found freedom to hunt for the means by which her father can be freed and her family reunited.

The utterly gorgeous animation in Nora Twomey's feature contrasts superbly with the genuinely dark and tense tale being told. The Breadwinner is powerful, gripping and has so much to say about a kind of society which may not be immediately familiar to many of us. Above all, for me, it's a story which celebrates strength of character and the power of hope, even in the most desperate of situations.

An honest, emotionally-charged piece of work, this demonstrates perfectly that animation can be as affecting as any other film genre.


THE ENDLESS


So if you read my "Best Of" list for 2017, you might be thinking that I've made some kind of mistake because The Endless was indeed in last year's Top Ten. Well, I saw it again (and again) in 2018 when it received a wider release outside of the festival circuit and I loved it even more on further viewing so here it is again.

After Resolution and Spring, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead made it three unmissable films out of three with this genre-hopping, mind-melting tale of Justin (Benson) and Aaron (Moorhead) who return to the "UFO death cult" from which they escaped years previously.

Resolutely refusing to stick to any standard template, The Endless constantly leaves the viewer genuinely unsure of exactly where the story is going and what the hell is going to happen next. It also avoids going down the usual route of having cult members behaving like lunatics within nanoseconds of being introduced to them. In fact, they actually seem like reasonable people with a purpose. Or is that what the movie wants you to think?

Taking the lead roles in their own film is something of a risk but Benson and Moorhead carry the film very well, helped by a fine supporting cast. The visual effects are glorious (and nothing short of miraculous considering the budget), the jokes work, the tension is built carefully. It's a perfect example of unshowy but supremely confident film-making. 

With beautifully executed, satisfying callbacks to their previous work - which also explain at least some of the quite frankly head-spinning plot developments - and a deliberate pace which allows you to both soak up the atmosphere and attempt to second guess what might be going on, The Endless rewards patience and attention. You may leave the cinema with your mind blown but trust me, you'll feel better for it.



LEAVE NO TRACE


Iraq war veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) are living off the grid in the forests of Oregon, careful not to attract any attention to themselves. That is until a mistake results in them in the hands of the authorities and they're both put into the care of social services who try to integrate them into society gradually.

Perhaps the paragraph above isn't going to get you running to see this but that's down to my summary and nothing to do with Debra Granik's superb film. Ditching all of the histrionics that would have been all too easy to deploy here, Leave No Trace is a low-key masterpiece which doesn't have to shout its message in your face to be a real heartbreaker.

The performances match the subtle tone perfectly too. Foster is a mass of repressed emotions and his inability to reconnect with the world is agonising to watch - I wanted to reach into the screen and give the guy a hug. Newcomer McKenzie is exceptional, giving us a totally convincing portrait of a tough but sensitive teenager without the overblown tantrums we've seen hundreds of times elsewhere.

I'm frustrated that this movie wasn't huge - I saw it on at a late showing one weekend with only a few others and it was clear from the reaction as we left the cinema that everyone loved it. It doesn't have the budget or the brashness of so much multiplex programming these days but Leave No Trace has no desire to be that kind of film. it's a moving story, told brilliantly, with two central performances we should be talking about much more. I urge you to see this.


LIFECHANGER


The imdb summary on this one says the following: "A murderous shapeshifter sets out on a blood-soaked mission to make things right with the woman he loves".

And that's more or less all I can tell you about it because to give you any further details would be to ruin the experience of going into it knowing nothing and wondering just where the hell it's going to go next. Suffice to say, we're straight into the world of the main character from minute one and looking at a situation which could spin off in a huge number of directions.

As the focal point of the plot, Lora Burke is casting gold as the engaging, good-natured but emotionally damaged Laura. From the moment we meet her she's a person we identify and connect with and will come to care about very much, which amplifies any potential danger to her all the more.

Lifechanger ended up being my favourite film of this year's Celluloid Screams festival. Considering how strong its 2018 line-up was that should give you some idea as to how much I rated it. It's a melancholic, chilling, romantic, engrossing little gem of a flick which I would recommend to horror and non-horror film fans alike.


MANDY


Lumberjack Red (Nicolas Cage) is living the quiet life in the wilderness with his bookish, rock chick partner Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) when their idyll is shattered by the arrival of a crazed hippie cult led by the creepy Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). Suffice to say some very bad things happen, leading Red down a path of bloody, surreal vengeance...

Re-tooling the revenge flick as a vivid, trippy, retina-scorching nightmare, Panos Cosmatos' debut feature will no doubt alienate as many as it impresses. The deliberately slow build of a first half gives way to a gore-splattered, unfettered riot of a second as Cage takes on LSD-addled bikers from Hell and eventually the cult itself.

It would be easy to focus on Nic going full Cage here but that would be to detract from what is essentially a, ahem, knowing (sorry) and enjoyable performance. Riseborough is, as always, terrific as title character and although Roache's villain has shades of the pantomime baddie he also manages to unnerve and disturb, his performance matching perfectly with the quite frankly batshit crazy things going on here.

The film also looks beautiful, full of wonderfully conceived visions of tranquillity and purgatory. It seems a tad lazy to call this an assault on the senses but that's exactly what it is and some viewers may not stay the distance because of the unrelenting visual and auditory pounding it dishes out. This is an immersive, impressive headfuck, it's off-kilter off the scale and I loved it to bits.

I also know that a lot of you out there absolutely hated Mandy and I understand why. It's probably the most divisive film I've seen this year. Forget that, it's definitely the most divisive film I've seen this year.



ONE CUT OF THE DEAD


As much as I love cinema there are times when I get a touch of movie fatigue, usually when I see a bunch of stuff that's so by-the-numbers I'm reciting the next line a character is going to say. It's at this point that I'm looking for the movie that's going to knock me out of my seat in genuine surprise. This year, that movie was micro-budgeted Japanese miracle One Cut Of The Dead.

I know you're going to have heard this before but that's more or less all I can tell you about it because to give you any further details would be to ruin the experience of going into it knowing nothing and wondering just what's going to happen next. Yes, initially you'll be impressed with the technical achievement of the very, very, VERY long take which opens the film, then you'll be wondering why a particularly well used - dare I say clichéd ? - plot device is thrown into the mix. You may even think you're going to get a tad bored with the rest of it. Trust me, you're not.

By the end of this, you're going to want to go back and watch it again immediately as the plot reveals just how incredibly clever it is. Seemingly minor details become major points in the unfolding story and character traits which appeared unimportant in the first instance are played for unexpectedly hilarious effect.

Proof once more that the horror genre continues to produce the most inventive output in cinema right now, One Cut Of The Dead is an absolute delight.

POM! 


SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE


After Peter Parker is killed attempting to stop the villainous Kingpin from activating a particle accelerator device which could open the doorway to parallel universes, teenager Miles Morales aims to become the new web slinger in town. Soon after, he runs into Peter Parker, who's anything but dead. And from another dimension. Things are complicated further when other spider-folk from other universes are dragged into Miles' version of New York and they all need to get back home...

Easily the best superhero movie of 2018 as far as I'm concerned, this sidesteps huge, interminable scenes of mass destruction (save for the climactic showdown) and focuses on both character development and the possibilities of the multiverse. It also has a relaxed, warm sense of humour and makes some smart choices - for instance, classic nemesis Doctor Octopus is involved, but with a twist here because...well, just watch and smile at the reveal.

It also has a pleasingly authentic comic book look, right down to some of the action taking place in lovingly-rendered panels across a beautifully animated New York. The idea of a team of Spider-folk banding together to take down the bad guys is a fine one and each has their own very specific identity. It's also a sweet coming-of-age story and it's a race against time to save the city. And it has Nic Cage as Spider-Noir. What more could you want? 


THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI


Frustrated with the lack of progress made by the investigation into her daughter's murder, Mildred (Frances McDormand) pays for a rather pointed series of messages to be displayed on the titular billboards, challenging local police Chief Woody Harrelson and his violence-prone second-in-command Sam Rockwell to up their game.

If you know the work of Martin McDonagh you'll more or less know what to expect here and to be fair Three Billboards will probably grate with those who just can't get on with his somewhat bleak view of the world but if you enjoyed his previous movies then all of the ingredients are present and correct: flawed characters, abrasive dialogue, jet-black comedy and bursts of unsettling violence.

Few of the characters may be especially likeable but it's their journey which kept me hooked. McDormand is predictably brilliant as the mother seeking justice and she's matched all the way in the performance stakes by Sam Rockwell who's incredble as the immature, bigoted mummy's boy of a Deputy who finds his life taking a series of turns he really doesn't expect. Even at the end I'm not sure I liked him much more than I did at the start but I understood him and that's part of the genius of this film.

Troubling? Yes. Problematic? Certainly. One of my favourites of 2018? Definitely.
And here are eleven extremely honourable mentions. All of the following may not have made it into the list above but you should still make a point of tracking them down because I think they're all excellent:

Blue My Mind - Quite possibly the least wistful coming of age story you'll see (this throws booze, drugs, hardcore pornography clips and shoplifting into the mix), Lisa Brühlmann's film melds this with a body horror plot as teenager Mia (the excellent Luna Wedler) goes through changes like none of her other friends. A truly leftfield take on teenage friendships and adolescent angst with a gloriously strange and emotional pay-off.

Ghost Stories - Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman's chiller owes a lot to those classic anthology movies by studios such as Amicus but they also bring a great deal of horror expertise to the party themselves as Professor Phillip Goodman (Nyman) sets out to explain three cases of the supposedly supernatural and finds a few nasty surprises waiting for him. Scary (particularly the opening case involving Paul Whitehouse as a night watchman) and funny with a lovely, rug-pulling twist at the end, this is a cracking example of modern British horror which also acknowledges its influences in an astute, entertaining way.

Knife+Heart -  A giallo-infused horror/thriller set in the world of gay porn movies, film director Anne (a wonderfully mercurial Vanessa Paradis) sets out to find who's offing her cast in very bloody, not to mention artful, ways. All the genre touchpoints - flamboyant characters, crazy plot twists, lurid murders - are handled with consummate skill and the proceedings are further elevated by some genuinely funny comedic moments and a pounding M88 score.

The Nurse With The Purple Hair - Sean S. Cunningham's powerful documentary about hospice care approaches its subject in an admirably frank and straightforward way but also with an unexpectedly life-affirming streak of joyful humour. You'll shed tears (I think I was crying for about 25 of its 47 minutes) but, to quote someone within this vital piece of work, they're good tears. It will also make you look at a difficult subject in a totally different light.

A Quiet Place - John Krasinski's masterclass in suspense pits him, wife Emily Blunt and their family against an alien menace which can't see for shit but is lethal at tracking its prey by means of sound. Certainly one of the quietest nights I've ever had at the cinema, the expertly-cranked tension made for a lot of moments when the audience held its collective breath. The set-pieces are great and the pay-off is both heart-wrenching and air-punching.

Revenge - Coralie Fargeat's ferocious thriller pits left-for-dead mistress Jen (Matilda Lutz) against her sleazeball lover and two of his equally repulsive associates. Toxic masculinity gets a swift kick in the balls (not to mention a bullet to the head) as Jen turns the tables in a blaze of extreme, bloody, breathtaking violence. Obviously not for the delicate but for the rest of us this is a strikingly shot burst of cinematic adrenaline.

The Shape Of Water - Mute cleaner Sally Hawkins falls for a captured sea creature at the facility in which she works and attempts to free him from the clutches of brutal Government security guy Michael Shannon. A potentially hokey plot is woven into something truly magical courtesy of Guillermo Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor's screenplay and, of course, Del Toro's savvy direction. The 1960s setting is wonderful, the performances are absolutely bang-on across the board and it's a fairytale treat for adults.

Tigers Are Not Afraid - More fairy tales but with a much darker edge as Issa López follows five orphaned children attempting to survive in an urban landscape torn apart by an ongoing drug war. The fantastical elements are deftly handled and are never allowed to overwhelm the grim, gritty reality. A slew of astonishing performances by the child actors and a thoroughly unnerving sense of creeping doom only add to the reasons you should see this one.

Upgrade - After an attack leaves him paralysed, technophobe Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) reluctantly embraces the cutting edge of science when he receives an experimental implant chip. This not only allows him to walk again but also to hit the time-honoured revenge trail. Leigh Whannell's creative collision of sci-fi and horror is full of shrewd ideas, black comedy and full-on, gory action. It's so much fun I wanted to watch it again as soon as the end credits rolled.

Wolfman's Got Nards - Andre Gower's documentary about The Monster Squad - its making, its initial failure at the box office and the amazing second life it's currently enjoying - delivers all of the on-set anecdotes you'd hope for but then bolsters that with a surprising emotional punch as fans and film-makers (plus film-makers who are also fans) underscore the 

You Were Never Really Here - Lynne Ramsay's dark, deconstructed action thriller sees Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, an expert at finding missing teens who's also a dab hand at doling out sickeningly horrible violence. The plot is of the familiar "straightforward case goes awry/powerful people involved/lots of people die" variety but it's handled in a way you won't have seen before and Phoenix makes for an intriguing anti-hero who's both sympathetic and terrifying at the same time.


Friday, 16 November 2018

CELLULOID SCREAMS 2018: DAY FOUR

Day 3 brought the Celluloid Screams crowd spooky shenanigans by the sea, warped wishes from Mexico, Squad goals across the world, monsters in New Zealand, plus vigilante mobs and a camp counsellor cull in the good ol' U.S. of A. Where would Day 4 take us? You're about to find out...


LIFECHANGER



Let's go with the imdb summary on this one: "A murderous shapeshifter sets out on a blood-soaked mission to make things right with the woman he loves".

Apart from that, I feel I should avoid giving away any details about the plot of Lifechanger because it's best that you go into it knowing as little as possible. If you really want me to provide a lazy comparison, think of it as The Hidden with less gratuitous carnage, more interesting existential musings and a welcome, unexpectedly warm dash of romance added to the mix (if you think the latter will lessen the body count then don't panic, it really doesn't).

Drawn you in? Okay, now forget that it's anything like The Hidden. Lifechanger has an M.O. all of its own and a lot of intriguing questions to pose. I was told this might be a bit of a slow-burner but I was gripped instantly by the situation of the central character and wondered where it was going next - not always where I thought, it turned out.

As the focal point of the plot, Lora Burke is casting gold as the engaging, good-natured but emotionally damaged Laura. From the minute we meet her she's a person we identify and connect with and will come to care about very much, which amplifies any potential danger to her all the more.

In a festival packed with gems, Lifechanger ended up being my favourite movie of the four days. I'm going to spoil it no further. All I can do is urge you to see this movie. It's bloody great.


POSSUM



Philip (Sean Harris) is a troubled sort, carrying around a nightmarish hand puppet - the Possum of the title - in a leather case. Staying with in the run-down house which used to be his chidlhood home, traumatic memories begin to surface and his attempts to destroy the puppet come to nought. Meanwhile, a local child disappears and Philip is very high on the list of suspects...

Director Matthew Holness is known, by me at least, for Garth Marenghi's Darkplace but anyone going into Possum thinking that it shares some - indeed, almost any - of Darkplace's DNA is in for a bit of a shock. You will not be laughing at any point in this movie. It's more than likely you'll be sitting there with a sense of growing unease. You may want to leave the cinema entirely.

I've rarely seen a movie with such an unrelentingly oppressive and fetid atmosphere and the skill with which this is evoked is beyond question. Whether you want to experience this for 85 minutes is entirely up to you. The grime threatens to spill from the screen, some of the dialogue is mumbled, the relationship between Philip and his stepfather makes your skin crawl - this is testing stuff, deliberately so.

I left the screening unnerved and a little overwhelmed, not really sure what to make of the film. Since then, the more I think of Possum the more impressed I am at its performances - both Harris and Armstrong are outstanding - its atmosphere and its unwillingness to pander to the audience. You may be looking for the film to give you an easy out but it doesn't do so. Not once.

Recommended, but brace yourselves.


SUMMER OF '84



Teenage wannabe film-maker Davey (Graham Verchere) suspects that one of his neighbours is a serial killer and enlists the help of his friends in order to gather evidence but the closer they get to the truth the more they find themselves in danger...

On the surface, Summer Of '84 is a familiar coming of age story. Bunch of teenagers hanging out? Check. One of them's a lot cooler than the others? Check. Main character has a massive crush on an older girl? Check. It also taps into the rich vein of nostalgia as makers RKSS did in their previous Turbo Kid.

However, there's also something much, much darker at work here. The cool kid, it turns out, has a really dreadful home life. The town's parents don't seem particularly invested in the possibility they're living alongside a potential serial killer. And there's a truly nasty kicker waiting for the group of friends as they edge ever closer to solving the mystery.

Some may not enjoy the shocking, jet black turn the plot takes late on but I thought it fit the mood of the piece very well indeed. The movie opens by making a point about how even though a place may look perfect it's merely a façade which is concealing something abhorrent. Summer of '84's conclusion echoes its initial gambit and then some, closing with a genuine, unresolved sense of disquiet. Growing up can be a painful experience.

The only duff note? I thought that Nikki, the object of Davey's crush, was somewhat peripheral to the proceedings and a tad underwritten but apart from that Summer Of '84 is a suspenseful, accomplished piece of work.


PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH



When comic book aficionado Edgar (Thomas Lennon) heads to a convention where the 30th Anniversary of the "Toulon Murders" is being commemorated, all he wants to do is sell off the Toulon puppet he's acquired so that he can make some easy money. What he hadn't counted on was the puppets being re-animated by an unseen force, triggering a whole new murder spree...

Written by S.Craig Zahler, scribe of both Bone Tomahawk and Brawl In Cell Block 99, this foregoes the slow-burn of those but retains their gory sensibilities as utterly disposable characters are burned, decapitated, dismembered, slashed and stabbed in glorious colour. The special effects crew was definitely kept busy during this project.

Unrestrained by anything approaching good taste, this is a complete and utter riot for anyone who isn't looking to be offended. If you are looking to be offended, it's a veritable smorgasbord of points about which to complain. Case in point: the sequence in which Edgar's pal Markowitz battles with a "Hitler baby" doll, leading to a hilarious pay off accompanied by a line which brought the Celluloid house down.

There's plenty of exploitation cred in the cast too, with Michael Paré as a detective, Barbara Crampton as an ex-cop-turned-expert Toulon murder tour guide and Udo Kier as Toulon himself. The final moment of The Littlest Reich is totally in keeping with the generally off-kilter nature of the piece. Obviously I'm not going to give it away but what I will say is that you'll find it frustrating or an absolute hoot, depending on your point of view.


CAM



Webcam performer Alice (Madeline Brewer), who's looking to increase her popularity with a series of increasingly sensational web shows as her online persona Lola, suddenly finds her channel locked out and hijacked by a doppelganger who appears to want to push the envelope even further. Can Alice get her channel, her followers and her life back?

Cam is an intriguing ghost in the machine tale given real depth and authenticity courtesy of a brilliant screenplay by Isa Mazzei which shines a sympathetic and fascinating light on the lives of the web performers and, like any workplace, the politics which exist the industry (watch for Samantha Robinson from "The Love Witch" on particularly pithy form in a supporting role). The writing crackles with truth, whether it's the ongoing competition to be the most popular girl on the webcam world or the quieter, poignant moments showing Alice's attempts to keep the details of her real job from her family.

In the main role(s), Brewer is exceptional: smart, sassy, savvy but also with a convincing streak of vulnerability which she tries to keep hidden most of the time. The movie doesn't slip into demonising all of the guys who enjoy the webcam shows either although it makes many salient points that, as in all walks of life, there are some weirdos out there and some men who get off on the control of women. It happens and the movie deals with it in an assured way.

Cam is an excellent exploration of the complex dynamic between the webcam stars and their followers, delivering its high-tech horror with humour and heart.


SEVEN STAGES TO ACHIEVE ETERNAL BLISS BY PASSING THROUGH THE GATEWAY CHOSEN BY THE HOLY STORSH



Closing the festival with a movie bearing the snappy title above, "Storsh" (as I will refer to it from now on) is the tale of a couple (Kate Micucci and Sam Huntington) who move to LA and snap up an apartment which is suspiciously cheap to rent. They soon find that this is because a cult leader (played by Taika Waititi) committed suicide in their bathtub, encouraging his followers to break into the property in order to follow their leader through said gateway of the title by killing themselves in said tub.

The potentially dark material here is expertly skirted by dialling up the comedy and pushing the absurdity of the situation for all its worth. Micucci's aspirational go-getter and Huntington's slacker make for an engaging double act and it's pleasing how the initial view of Storsh himself - he must have been some sort of crackpot - begins to give way to "hmm, maybe there is something in what he was saying".

The frequent suicide attempts are a great excuse to feature talented comedy performers in cameo roles (Maria Bamford and Mark McKinney* to name but two) and although a procession of cultists attempting to do themselves in doesn't sound like an especially enjoyable evening of cinema entertainment, the execution - maybe I should have chosen a better word there - will more than like make you smile, maybe even laugh quite a few times.

Surprisingly sweet given the subject matter, Storsh is more delicately dark comedy than hard-driving horror but it will appeal to fans of the genre. The laughs dry up a little towards the end but that doesn't spoil what's gone before. Considering there's quite a lot of death in this movie it's a charming, offbeat yarn with an almost constant stream of chuckles. Give it a go, it's rather lovely in its own strange way.




EPILOGUE

And that, as they say, was that. The 10th Edition of Celluloid Screams delivered another strong line-up of films - quite possibly its strongest yet. I know I say that every year but I can always make a case for it. It gets bigger, it gets better, the Celluloid Screams family grows every year and the social side of the festival is just as important and enjoyable as the films being shown.


To everyone I met in person for the first time this year, it was great to finally get to chat. To the returnees who still speak to me, it's great to catch up. To those who I got to know in the festival's infancy and continue to annoy every single year, I apologise for the ramblings and occasional rants. You people are the best.

Of course, I can't close without thanking those behind the festival who spend a huge amount of time seeking out films and making sure that the extended weekend ran like clockwork - or made it appear it was running like clockwork even if it wasn't. When it looks effortless you know it really isn't.

So, a huge, heartfelt thank you to Rob Nevitt, Polly Allen, Lucy Swift, Clare Platton and the rest of this absolutely amazing team. You always knock it right out of the park and I'm in it for as long as you are. It's always a highlight of my year and I'm sure Celluloid Screams 2019 will somehow be even more awesome.

And to anyone who was trapped in the bar during my end of festival karaoke performance, I'm really sorry. Probably a good time to also apologise to Nena for mangling the German language. It won't happen again.

Or will it?


*Full disclosure - I'm a massive fan of The Kids In The Hall. "I'M CRUSHING YOUR HEAD!!!"

Friday, 9 November 2018

CELLULOID SCREAMS 2018: DAY THREE

Relationship revelations, giallo goings-on in gay porn and celluloid carnage featured in Day Two. Here's what happened over the course of Day Three...

THE CRESCENT



Affter a death in the family, Beth (Danika Vandersteen) takes her son Lowen (Woodrow Graves) to her mother's beachfront house in the hope that the change of location will help with the healing process. Do you think it will? This is a horror movie after all and it becomes obvious that something is clearly not right. Is it the house, is the somewhat odd local population or is it something else?

A slow burner - the spooky stuff doesn't really begin to kick in until about 45 minutes have passed - it's clear that The Crescent is playing its cards very close to its chest and isn't going to reveal its hand in any kind of sudden, grand gesture. Even the end of the movie is open to several interpretations and if you're the sort of person who wants a explanation for all of the weirdness then you might be frustrated at where this ultimately goes (or doesn't go).

This is the kind of movie where it's entirely possible to just sit back and soak up the atmosphere - and I really enjoyed doing so - but I appreciate that this may not be enough for everyone. Vandersteen is excellent in the lead role and Graves is amazing. He's the focus of the movie for an unexpectedly large amount of time and he's never less than totally convincing so bravo, young sir.

The Crescent offsets its somewhat languid pace with its fine performances, arty visuals and agreeably tuned sense of creeping dread. There's much to admire but I was also struck by the thought that it would have also made a breathtaking short.


TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID



After her mother is kidnapped by a drug cartel, 10-year-old Estrella (Paola Lara) falls in with the streetwise El Shine (Juan Ramón López) and his gang of orphans. Given three wishes, Estrella looks to use them for good but with a tide of violence threatening to engulf the city and a vicious drug lord in pursuit of the children those wishes don't quite have the consequences she'd expected...

An undoubted highlight of the festival, Issa López's film may invite comparisons to the work of Guillermo Del Toro but the fantasy elements in Tigers Are Not Afraid are not as pronounced and are never allowed to overwhelm the grimy, terrifying reality of the situation portrayed here.

An early sequence in which a class of kids press themselves to the floor as a gunfight rages on the streets outside is a masterclass in unbearable tension and unseen terror, setting out the movie's stall with consummate skill. You'll have few chances to breathe easily over the 83-minute running time and at the end of it all you may want to take a few quiet moments to appreciate fully this extraordinary movie. 

The performances of the child actors are nothing short of astonishing and they carry the movie with a confidence and magnetism which belies their years. The urban setting is a fascinating one, with rooftops, abandoned buildings and the darkest recesses of the city being played for both their magic and squalor. The scares are skilfully played, the emotional journey devastating.

A beautiful, brutal piece of cinema, this is essential viewing.


WOLFMAN'S GOT NARDS



Who remembers The Monster Squad? I certainly do. However, it appears as though many people out there don't, or at least didn't. André Gower's documentary traces the making of the film, its subsequent - and thoroughly undeserved - tanking at the box office, and its unexpected resurrection as an ever-growing bunch of fans championed the film (and continue to do so).

With contributions from the film-makers and the fans, Wolfman's Got Nards expertly balances anecdotes relating to the shooting of the original movie itself with a variety of vignettes featuring those for whom the 1987 monster mash holds a special place in their heart.

The subject matter would be more than interesting enough to work as a documentary on its own but where Wolfman's Got Nards truly scores is the unexpected emotional punch it packs, whether it's Fred Dekker musing with no little candour on the piece of work which severely damaged his career following its failure at the box office or the heartwarming stories of TMS' legion of fans both young and old.André

It's also pleasing to catch up with the Squad's cast as we follow them on a tour of the US (and beyond) to screenings of the film and their joy at being a part of what's clearly becoming a phenomenon genuinely comes across - they seem such a nice bunch I was left feeling glad that the world finally caught up and realised their horror film is not only terrific but appeals to all age groups. That's something worth celebrating.

Ultimately, it's a story of family (both that of The Monster Squad's cast/crew and the wider horror community), a tale of an injustice being righted - as the movie finally began to gain the traction which had eluded it for so long - and a timely reminder of just how bloody good The Monster Squad is. It fully deserves to be loved by an entirely new generation of viewers and Wolfman's Got Nards is the perfect companion piece.

Oh, by the way, I mentioned that the cast seemed such a nice bunch in an earlier paragraph. Well, André Gower - the director of Wolfman's Got Nards and Sean in The Monster Squad - was in attendance at Celluloid Screams and I don't really know how to break the news to you but...yes, he's a cool, smart, funny guy who happens to have been in a great horror movie and has now made a great documentary. Damn you, André.


WELLINGTON PARANORMAL



Since their appearance in What We Do In The Shadows, you might have been wondering exactly what Wellington Police Department Officers O'Leary (Karen O'Leary) and Minogue (Mike Minogue) have been doing. Wonder no longer as we discover they're, er, still with the Wellington Police Department and they're about to be assigned to the brand new, ever so hush-hush Paranormal Unit which has been set up by their Sergeant (Maaka Pohatu).

Over the course of six episodes we follow O'Leary and Minogue in documentary style as their investigations bring them face to face with demons, aliens, ghosts, werewolves, vampires, zombies and, most terrifying of all, clowns. It's all part of the job as they work the focal point of supernatural occurrences that is New Zealand's capital city.

This series is scheduled to be broadcast in the UK in 2019 and I would urge you to catch it because I don't remember laughing this much at anything in a very long time. There's an innate understanding of classic horror monsters and tropes at play here and this is used to mine the proceedings for maximum comedy effect.

The Law of Averages (and episodic television) would suggest that, out of the the six episodes which form Season One, there'd be a duff one among the bunch. Not the case here as the quality is ridiculously, consistently high. Each investigation is packed with laugh out loud moments and across the instalments there are some nicely played running gags, particularly one concerning the security systems which, er, "protect" the access to Sergeant Maaka's "secret office".

Of course, this wouldn't work quite as well if the two leads weren't so engaging. O'Leary and Minogue as, er, O'Leary and Minogue are bloody hilarious and their deadpan double act is an absolute joy. Even their most mundane exchanges are loaded with comic smarts to the point where there's a risk you might miss the odd gag because you're still laughing at the previous one.

The two stars were also in attendance - in character - at the Celluloid Screams screening to introduce their series and to provide assurance on the safety precautions which had been taken to ensure our safety. They also managed to weave in a brilliant joke about something which had happened during the screening of Halloween a couple of nights earlier and Officer O'Leary was on hand to helpfully explain the cuts to black which signalled the ad breaks.

Possibly the most fun I've ever had at a cinema screening, this was three hours (including Q&A session) of pure delight and the experience of being in a packed auditorium laughing themselves silly over and over again is something that will stay with me for a very long time. What else can I say about Wellington Paranormal but "more please". And it looks like there may very well be more, which is great news.


ASSASSINATION NATION


When a local politician's salacious online details are hacked, the small town of Salem is abuzz with gossip. Things take a much worse turn when all of the town's dirty secrets are leaked, leading to local girl Lily (Odessa Young) finding herself at the centre of the subsequent witch hunt (well, that's what happens when you live in Salem) and ending up in a fight for her very survival along with three of her friends...

Beginning with the Universal ident, I was ready for this to deliver a studio-neutered vision of mob violence, soft-pedalled vigilante justice and multiplex-friendly "abhorrent" behaviour. Boy, was I wrong. Assassination Nation pulls very few punches in its two-hour attack on what a bunch of preening, privileged, pathetic little pricks human beings can be.

Apart from one overly theatrical flounce out of the cinema (dramatically pronouncing the film to be "an abomination" - yeah yeah, wanting attention much?), the feeling after the screening was that a large proportion of the Celluloid Screams audience found this a gripping, confrontational experience.

Boasting a quartet of teenage female characters that actually feel like smart, rounded people rather than a collection of wisecracks and angst which just sounded good to the writer, Assassination Nation builds nicely, wisely saving its full tilt into gory horror for its third act when the shit really hits the fan and everyone gives full vent to their inner keyboard warrior.

The potential ills of social media may be something of a soft target but this film deals with the subject in an adept, fearless way, mixing its terror and suspense with a deliciously dark dash of comedy. It's bold, it's brash and it's rather brilliant.


YOU MIGHT BE THE KILLER (CELLULOID SCREAMS SECRET FILM)



Camp counsellor Sam (Fran Kranz) calls his good friend Chuck (Alyson Hannigan) with a doozy of a quandary. He has sketchy memories of the previous few hours and now there are murder victims littering the place. Chuck's knowledge of horror movies will come into play as she and Sam attempt to piece together what's been going on because at first glance it seems as if Sam might be the killer. Well, it is in the title, after all.

A deconstructed slasher film which begins near the end and then spends its 90 minutes filling the gaps in the plot's timeline in ways which are frequently non-linear, this has a fair amount of fun with its premise and it's crammed with amusing nods to the all-too-familiar tropes of the camp counsellor carnage flick.

It's also fun to see Alyson Hannigan back in the genre and, although she spends the movie dispensing advice over a phone line while wandering the one location in which she works, her performance is one of the film's strengths. As the sweet but fiercely logical voice of reason, Chuck attempts to keep Sam on the rails as his situation goes from bad to worse.

In the final analysis, YMBTK doesn't turn out to anywhere near as groundbreaking as the early action may hint at but it's an amusing, gory, entertaining romp which didn't outstay its welcome and had me leaving cinema with a smile on my face. Which can't be a bad thing.

Friday, 26 October 2018

CELLULOID SCREAMS 2018: DAY TWO

After Day One's mixture of Cage rage and Michael Myers mayhem, what did Day Two have in store for the Celluloid Screams crowd? Read on...


WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE



Loved-up couple Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Brittany Allen) head out to a remote woodland location to celebrate their first wedding anniversary and all is going swimmingly until a visitor unwittingly lets slip a piece of information about Jackie which will have Jules questioning everything she knows - or thinks she knows - about her wife...

I've been careful to say as little as I can about the plot because the less you know going into What Keeps You Alive the more you'll enjoy it. Just over 20 minutes in there's a breathtaking surprise in store (I think most of the Celluloid Screams audience had the same "WTF?" reaction I had) and from there on it's fun to just roll with the story to see exactly where it heads next.

Strong performances from Anderson and Allen (both excellent in very different ways, but I can't tell you what those ways are) anchor the somewhat outlandish cirumstances to a bedrock of chilling plausibility, not to mention keeping the tension simmering nicely. There's also plenty of cracking, darkly comic dialogue to be savoured. I just can't tell you what that is for fear of giving something, anything away.

Writer/director Colin Minihan piles on the twists and turns to such an extent that by the end you might feel it's possibly taken one or two too many plot swerves but that's a very minor gripe about a film which confidently raises the suspense stakes time after time. See it and be thoroughly entertained by all of the things I can't tell you about in this mini-review, then you'll know exactly why I'm being so frustratingly light on detail here.

You're getting no more from me on this subject. Go watch.


KNIFE + HEART



Gay porn film producer Anne (Vanessa Paradis) is having relationship trouble with her editor/lover Loïs (Kate Moran) but that's nothing compared to trouble she's about to face when one of her actors is brutally murdered. Using the ongoing police investigation as the inspiration to make a more ambitious adult movie, Anne is fully aware that everyone is a potential suspect or victim as the masked murderer sets about making their own cuts to those involved...

Knife+Heart's refreshingly different setting provides the perfect backdrop to a stylish, giallo-inflected treat, packed with extravagant characters and lurid killings, all sumptuously filmed in gorgeous 35mm, its musical heart driven by a pounding M83 synth score. Paradis is excellent in a complex role and the film-within-a-film's cast are brought to flamboyant life, particularly Nicolas Maury as the sympathetic but no-nonsense Archibald.

The third act, true to the classic examples of the subgenre, dials up the weirdness even more as the killer's background and motives are slowly revealed, culiminating in their attempt to complete their peculiar plan at a cinema where Anne is watching one of her previous productions.

To say I'm a giallo fan is something of an understatement so Un Couteau Dans Le Coeur (to use its French title) was high on my list of must-sees at the festival and it did not disappoint in the slightest. All the elements are present and correct - psychological horror, dreamy interludes, graphic bloodshed and sexploitation - and these seem to be more at home than ever in the close-knit community portrayed here.

The sexuality of the characters is not a big deal here, thank goodness. Yes, I did notice a comment on social media referring to the number of blowjobs in this film but a) they're tastefully framed, b) they're filming an adult movie, that kind of thing is going to happen and c) they're so incidental to the story that I'm not sure why anyone would focus on them. This is a deftly crafted, naturalistic portrayal of the dynamics between a group of LGBT people who just happen to be making porn. Some of us need to grow the fuck up and appreciate the view from elsewhere.

Okay, lecture over. Knife+Heart is beautiful, bloody and brilliant. It has the brutal murders and all of the strangeness you'd expect but it also possesses real warmth and heart plus a welcome dash of intentional comedy. How could you not embrace something that has a character called the Mouth Of Gold?


NIGHTMARE CINEMA



Five people (well, six to be totally accurate as one segment features a couple) wander into a spooky theatre and, once inside, they're each treated to a short movie they probably weren't expecting. The film they're watching features themselves in a tale of terror and chances are it's not going to be "the feelgood movie of the year"...

As a fan of portmanteau movies - especially the Amicus ones such as Asylum and Tales From The Crypt - and with knowledge of the remarkable directorial talent involved I have to admit that I went into this one secretly hoping that it would be great. Unfortunately, I came out of it feeling more than a little deflated.

As with any example of this type, the individual segments should take different approaches (which they do) which means they'll land in different ways (which they do) and as long as the hit-to-miss ratio is acceptably high I don't see how that's an issue. I really didn't expect five classics and nor should I have. Here, out of the five stories, I really enjoyed one, liked one, tried hard to like one but couldn't quite manage to and didn't really care about the other two.

Yes, there's gore aplenty and although there are a number of intriguing ideas bubbling under the surface these take flight very rarely, which means that a particular story ends up going absolutely nowhere, another stops pretty much dead with little revelation while another falls back on having a lot of people meeting bloody ends.

Also, the overarching device - involving Mickey Rourke as the projectionist of the titular theatre - is frustratingly underdeveloped and I would have liked his character to have been fleshed out a little more. Well, make that fleshed out at all. The potential to showcase a great character is pretty much thrown away as all he really ends up doing is pointing out to each unfortunate cinemagoer just how screwed they are.

I wanted to love this so much and it's incredibly frustrating to me that I didn't (judging by the chatter after the screening I'm sure many people rated it highly). I still think there's mileage in the concept though and despite the fact that this missed the mark for me I'm not averse to a Nightmare Cinema 2 with new stories and directors.